Sir Bob on blondes, boozy lunches and F&P

Sir Bob Jones

"It just doesn't matter," Sir Bob Jones barks down the phone from his Wellington office.

In a conversation prompted by Chinese company Haier's bid to take over Fisher & Paykel Appliances, the 72-year-old property magnate brings up 1980s pop hit Melting Pot and an amusing anecdote involving a boozy lunch with Australian government officials.

Alarmingly, he also confidently predicts blondes will be extinct within 50 years.

Like any interview with the NBR Rich Lister – littered with references to far-away places and politicians, and sprinkled with profanity – you just have to jump into his stream of consciousness and enjoy the ride.

To some, F&P's story might be typically Kiwi: that we've got the know-how to develop a world-leading product but somehow we fail to convert that into world-leading sales.

Nonsense, snorts Sir Bob. A lot of New Zealand companies – including his own Robt. Jones Holdings, which has about $1 billion of commercial and industrial property in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney – own stuff abroad.

"We've brought back about $30 million in rental earnings from Australia, all starting from scratch in 1993, over the last 10 years to help pay for buildings we bought back here.

"These are the things that, because it's a private company, you never read about. But I'm sure there's plenty of duplications."

We are witnessing the greatest human migration in history and the world will be better for it, he says. Hysteria over Chinese ownership of farms is childish, he says, and if we lose people to Australia we've got better people coming in.

It's like the 80s tune Melting Pot, he says, that, lamentably, isn't heard any more.

"Look, when I was young, marrying an Australian would be considered incredibly exotic. These days, if your neighbour said to you, 'Bill's engaged, he's in London, he's met a lovely girl from bloody Moldova, or Kyrgyzstan or Peru' or something, you wouldn't blink twice.

"All the inter-marriage, the massive shift – unprecedented in human history – of great waves of people moving here there and everywhere. And it's really good, it's terrific."

It is then that he makes his claim about blondes. People have predominantly dark colouring, he reasons, so combine that will the global intermingling and "there won't be any blondes left in 50 years".

(However, it appears these claims first surfaced during the American Civil War and seem wide of the mark.)

Imbibing with FIRB

To illustrate his own brush with xenophobia, he harks back to the 1980s and his battles to buy Australian office buildings with that country's Foreign Investment Review Board, empowered by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke's rhetoric.

He recalls a particularly boozy lunch with FIRB after they knocked back his application to buy a large Brisbane office tower.

When they got down to business – and before a dish had even been ordered – an economist, who Sir Bob describes as a "bad-tempered, fat Welshman", laid down the law.

"You know the f*cking rules," the Welshman apparently said.

Despite the awkwardness, the lunch went on as planned. And, with a little liquid encouragement, the meeting turned around.

"I said, 'I'm just going to the toilet', and I ripped over to the waitress and said there's a very big tip coming – do not wait to be asked, keep topping those b*stards' glasses up," Sir Bob recalls.

"So within half an hour it was all very jolly. On to cricket and all this and the whole thing went all afternoon. We were pretty p*ssed. And we got up to leave and the Welshman said, 'Listen you bastards, I'll let you have this one but don't come back with any more'."

History says they did keep going back but their tactics changed – from wining and dining to sending a dreary accountant to bore them into submission.

Sir Bob returns to his central theme and asks rhetorically why Auckland is booming.

"Because half its citizens weren't born there and they're coming in from Gore and Oamaru and China and everywhere else and they're hungry fighters."

He challenges NBR ONLINE to find an Auckland-born waiter or waitress at a downtown restaurant, "and if you do I'll come up there, chop my hands off and eat them uncooked".

F&P's takeover is as meaningless as Australian company Fairfax's takeover of Trade Me, he concludes.

"It doesn't matter who owns the bloody things. Because we're buying stuff elsewhere and the world's going to be one big common market and that is the world trend. So who gives a stuff?"

Takeovers will continue: an academic view

The University of Auckland Business School Professor Siah Hwee Ang says if Haier's bid is successful it won't be the first time an innovative New Zealand company has fallen into the hands of global giants.

"This will continue to happen unless there is a strong sense of 'who we are' when conducting businesses.  Entrepreneurs are passionate but as companies grow, ownerships get diluted and financial gains can come into play with some of the shareholders."

He says there is no 100% takeover protection for even the most innovative companies. It's about how effective you protect your intellectual property and then go to market fast enough to survive the vultures, he says.

"I don't think this is about New Zealand, it happens a lot in other contexts as well.

"F&P has created many good products, but I'm not sure if they have been the most effective exploiters of their own innovations.

"If they have, it would have been the case that F&P would do better than Haier and the acquisition could be the other way round. R&D is an input, not output."

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